`Missing' Rwandan refugees fall prey to whim of big-power rivalry

Realpolitik, not racism, is at root of row over military intervention, writes John Lichfield

The fate, condition - even the existence - of up to 700,000 "missing" Rwandan refugees has become a political football on three continents.

A proposed international force for central Africa, agreed in principle last week, has become mired in disagreements and suspicion on the scope and purposes of the mission. Officers from 20 nations meet in Stuttgart today to "review military options". The meeting has twice been delayed; no decisions are expected. Despite the pleas of aid agencies, it remains unclear, seven days on, how large a force can be assembled and when, if ever, it will be sent.

The voluntary, homeward flood of 500,000 Rwandan refugees in the past five days has thrown planning of the mission into confusion. The main purpose of intervention was to escort aid to the refugees, who fled the 1994 Rwandan civil war, and encourage them to go home. Most of the remaining facts - how many Rwandan refugees are in Zaire? where are they? how hungry are they? who, if anybody, is controlling them? - are disputed or unknown.

The US, Britain and a number of Africa countries are increasingly doubtful about military intervention, suspecting that, as the refugee crisis ebbs, the force may be drawn into a struggle for control of Zaire. Washington and London say they will not commit forces until the situation is clearer. The US is unlikely to send combat troops in any circumstances.

France, Belgium and Spain, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and all humanitarian agencies on the ground say military action is still needed to find and protect 700,000 "missing" Rwandans. The return of thousands of Hutu refugees from camps around Goma should not blind the world to the possible plight of thousands of others caught up in the Zairean civil war. Rwanda insists the missing Hutus are a myth. Canada, which agreed to lead the intervention force, appears to be in two minds.

Yesterday Emma Bonino, the European Union's humanitarian aid commissioner, in effect accused the world community of racist indifference to the refugees' plight. "How many lives have to be in danger ...to justify a deployment of troops?" she said in a speech in the European Parliament. "Is it the colour of their skin which makes the difference?"

Cynicism about Western arguments and motives is understandable but the core issue is not racism but realpolitik. The US, Britain and South Africa fear intervention which might have repercussions throughout central Africa. Although the force's mandate would be limited to helping refugees, they suspect French pressure for its deployment is not driven purely by humanitarian concern.

The presence of forces of this kind has a habit of freezing local conflicts. In this case, it might check the Zairean rebels who have defeated the Zairean army and remnants of the genocidal former Rwandan government army, which ruled the Hutu refugee camps. The rebels have been presented as separatists but they say their aim is to rid Zaire of the regime of President Mobutu Sese Seko. France is suspected of wishing to prop up his regime by introducing a new, international, military element. US officials say they have no particular interest in seeing the rebels succeed; they just do not want to get involved.

However, France, in its turn, is suspicious of the close relationship between the US and the Rwandan government, dominated by English-speaking, long-exiled Tutsi forces which won the 1994 civil war (who have no love of France, a supporter of the previous, Hutu, regime). Paris has no particular faith in the corrupt Mr Mobutu but fears its influence over francophone Africa may be further diminished if Zaire - or large parts of it - fall to forces allied to a Rwandan government distrustful of France.

In coded language, each side accuses the other of ignoring, or overplaying, the humanitarian crisis for its own wider political ends. The aid agencies say geo-politics means little to the thousands - 400,000? 500,000? 700,000? - of Hutu refugees trapped around Bukavu or wandering in the vast Zairean forests to the west. Satellites pinpoint the missing thousands

Geneva (agencies) - The UNHCR said it had found the 700,000 missing Rwandan Hutu refugees in eastern Zaire, using Western satellite and aerial pictures. The largest group, of 250,000 people, was located 45 miles from Bukavu.

Meanwhile, refugees said Zairean rebels were detaining young men as Rwandans emerged from the hills above Goma. They also reported fighting between the rebels and Rwandan Hutu militiamen driven out of the huge Mugunga refugee camp by the rebels last week.

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